Production Basics Are Still Important In The Era Of Video Democratization

Now that virtually anyone can afford a very high quality video camera, the democratization of video production is in full play. With that comes shortcuts adapted by newcomers that make the video quality dreadful, but become acceptable through frequent use. In a way, it is a dumbing down of video production.

Photo by Rebekah Baines.

Photo by Rebekah Baines.

I once asked a young millennial woman writing in a coffee shop on a iPad how she found editing copy on the device. She told me she didn’t edit; she just sent her copy online with mistakes and all. Why? Because, she told me, her generation understands that typos, errors and bad grammar don’t matter. As an old school writer, I couldn’t believe what she was saying.

Recently, I saw an online video with a 40-year-old video editor musing as to whether he was “over the hill” for being bothered by jump cuts in video. It seems the proven, age-old techniques of cover shots, cutaways and avoiding crossing the line are either being ignored or not understood by a new generation of videographers.

I suspect they don't understand because they haven’t learned the craft. Most good videographers I know of any age follow the basic rules of imagemaking in their productions. The maxim “every picture tells a story” usually comes under challenge whenever an amateur videographer works without understanding the basic “language” of the moving picture medium.

Just as understanding grammar is still an ingredient in good writing, there are conventions that most audiences have come to expect when watching video. Rules, of course, are made to be broken by artists. Most of today’s young videomakers, however, are far from being artists.

Those who ignore the tried and true conventions of the moving image process without understanding why are usually doomed to failure. Every video — if it’s any good — is designed to tell a story. How the videographer selects the individual images and pieces them together in an edited sequence determines whether the story is convincingly told or whether it leaves the audience confused.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchi.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchi.

A key consideration, for example, in creating a sequence of shots is to maintain clear screen direction for the viewer. That is, to keep everything — people and objects — facing the same direction as the camera switches shots.

Though this may sound simple and obvious, but it is a common problem that can cause the audience to become disoriented when the camera position is changed. All of us have seen reverse cuts when a person moving one way across the screen suddenly reverses direction. Or when two people, facing each other, are having a conversation and suddenly one appears to be talking from behind the other.

In both cases, the camera operator has “crossed the line.”

The so-called “line” represents an imaginary linear reference point drawn through a scene over which the camera may not cross without shaking the audience’s sense of screen geography. The line can be referenced to movement, eye contact between subjects or any other area of interest in the scene.

As long as the camera stays on one side of the line, it can move freely from shot to shot and screen direction will be maintained. Though in theory this sounds like an easy rule to follow, in the real world of production there are times when crossing the line is necessary.

There are several ways to do so without confusing the audience. These techniques are essential to the skilled videomaker’s craft. There are many ways to do this. A frequently-used method for crossing the line is to place the camera exactly “on-the-line” for a transition shot.

"Crossing the Line" chart.

A common mistake for news videographers comes in documentary-style interviews. First, record the interview with the camera on the subject. Then rotate the subject and interviewer until a desirable background is found for the interviewer.

In doing this, remember as long as the camera doesn’t cross the line, it can be placed anywhere. And since the interviewer is still facing the same direction as before, the line has not been crossed and the two shots will cut with the same screen direction.

In news and documentary situations, where advance planning is often impossible, it is best to cover yourself with plenty of wide establishing shots to show screen geography and as many cutaways of individuals and objects as possible. The basic rules of crossing the line should be mastered by every video camera operator. Failure to do so highlights one’s amateur status.

Though anyone today can engage in video production, most newcomers need to learn the basic visual rules of moving images. They also need to understand camera movement, basic lighting, sound and, especially, how to tell a coherent story. Just randomly aiming a camera doesn't cut it. That leads to even more unwatchable video — something the world has too much of already. 

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